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The End of the Enlightenment: a Fable for Our Times


Literary scholar and critic Walter Benjamin said that for human social progress to occur it was necessary to “dissolve myth into the space of history” but he was wrong. From the vantage point of the early 21st century, myth is back, and badder than ever. It is the ultimate Ghost in the Machine of the Scientific Revolution. And I’m going to suggest that not only will we not rid ourselves of the mythic worldview in any conceivable social formation that might actually be thought of as progress, but that it has been a great mistake even to try.

Benjamin applied a profoundly poetic insight to the critical appreciation of imaginative literature, one of the major narrative traditions that emerged from ancient myth. But he was also a follower of Marx and thus a materialist. As such he was a late product of the European Enlightenment. If any records or scholars to analyze them survive in, say, three hundred years, I believe they will determine that the Enlightenment ended sometime around the turn of the 21st century (and Benjamin’s quixotic life and death under the shadow of European fascism may provide an interesting sidelight to its demise).

The Enlightenment was thoroughly and inevitably Trumped (a term that – for now – has the resonance of a fable) largely by the unintended consequences of the work of three of its final, and greatest, heroes. Perhaps a Ragnarök analogy is not out of place here.

What I’m about to do is present our recent history to you as a mythic fable. Bear with me, and at the end I will tell you why.

The Three Brothers

There were three men came out of the West

Their fortunes for to try…

First off, who were the Three Heroes of whom I speak? They were not Abraham, Martin, and John. They were European men, because they had to be, creations of the intellectual tradition they ultimately helped to bring down. German was their native language and all were Jews, and no one can say (or at least I can’t) whether that is a crucial or a tangential aspect of the story. Their names were Karl, Sigmund, and Albert.

Let us call them brothers, as culture heroes who share the same roots are often called. Knights of the Enlightenment, each went forth in words and symbols to conquer a different realm. The oldest, Karl, took his formidable sword to the realm of History, and the profoundly unequal relations between humans that it had forged. He sought not simply to speak for, but to elaborate, a system for human life that was inherently just. He believed that the forces of History were rationally intelligible. Once analyzed correctly, those forces could be wielded consciously, and society could advance to become the ultimate expression of human freedom and fulfillment. Karl believed that human Progress was if not inevitable, at least highly probable, a logical conclusion based in a correct interpretation of the past. The dragon he fought, which had risen up over generations to enslave humans and every day tormented and consumed them, was called Capital.

Sigmund set out to conquer an entirely different realm. His battle was with the forces inside the human mind that reason could barely control. He sought to create a system for understanding and neutralizing these forces, fighting their effects as a medical doctor fights disease. He did not believe in Progress or Justice, but in a constant, unending, internal war, which reason had no hope of winning. Still, he believed that the human mind had a structure that was rationally intelligible. Once analyzed correctly, it could be cleansed of the most crippling effects of its fundamental debilities. Meanwhile civilization (the civilization that had produced him), inequitable and brutal as it was, must be defended as the most highly rational social order that humans were capable of creating. The dragon he fought, which stood outside the gates of that civilization and every day threatened to bring its walls crashing down, was called the Id.

Albert, the youngest, was not a fighter but a starry-eyed dreamer (as youngest brothers often are in fable). He had no desire to conquer any realm by doing battle. Instead he wished to journey to the farthest reaches of the universe and bring back knowledge that would culminate the Enlightenment’s grandest quest, its Secular Grail: the great unification, the understanding of how Everything Was Connected by a Rationally Intelligible System of Laws. Albert believed that the cosmos was a rational place: it was unified and its laws of behavior could be applied uniformly throughout. The most supremely rational tool humans had ever created was mathematics. Building upon the work of Newton, a founding titan of the Enlightenment, Albert would apply mathematics to the cosmos at the largest scale and uncover the Great Unity.

Along the way, he found that he was required to fight a dragon, as all such heroes are, whether they choose to or not. The dragon he fought was Ignorance.

The Tragic Ending

Standing here, a hundred years and more down the line from their epic battles, in the wreckage of their evanescent kingdoms, with all their dragons still rampaging over the land, you may begin to see where the story is headed. Each of these culture heroes of the West could be given his own version of the Morte D’Arthur, a mythic history presenting (in sometimes excruciatingly boring detail) every twist and turn of their ultimately unsuccessful quests. And what the story arc would show was how the seeds of failure were lodged somewhere in the nature of the quests themselves, and in the unintended consequences that a heroic desire for total understanding produces when it comes up against the dense, complex, turbid nature of reality, including the elusive nature of humans, and perhaps of time itself.

But to make those long stories short, I will Sum Up. Each of these men created intellectual products that were profoundly influential to the way power was wielded in the 20th century. But rather than resulting in a more rational and enlightened human existence overall, in each case, they boomeranged. In culminating the Enlightenment, they also brought about its end. The West has a common name for this type of hero story: tragedy.

T.H. White popularized the legend of King Arthur for a 20th century readership in The Once and Future King, and was himself a victim of the Age of Unintended Consequences when his profoundly disturbing novel was saccharinized into the Disney cartoon The Sword in the Stone and the Broadway musical Camelot (although there are some very pretty songs in the latter). White’s primary scholarly insight into Malory’s work was that it was perfectly structured as a classically defined tragedy. An interesting tangent is that White applied his understanding of Freudian psychology to the legendary figures in the story, in order to make them more sympathetic, or at least comprehensible, to a modern audience in his retelling. In Malory’s tale, and White’s reprise, King Arthur’s mythic reign of justice is brought to grief by his illegitimate son Mordred.

What of our heroic brothers? Karl, you could say, engendered many illegitimate sons, and perhaps the eldest and most powerful, Vladimir Lenin, bears the largest responsibility for undermining and perverting Karl’s great hopeful system in a Real World Situation. But of course there are a number of other candidates, one for almost every successful attempt at Marxist revolution. How on earth did the cult of the Supreme Leader become endemic to national experiments in communism in the 20th century? It was antithetical to Karl’s vision of communism.

And how did communist revolutions take hold, not in wealthy societies where there was a functional infrastructure and a significant surplus to be redistributed (as Karl predicted they would), but in desperately impoverished ones that could only redistribute scarcity? These are subjects it behooves Marxist historians to tackle.

In the meantime, the tragic irony of Karl’s heroic endeavor vs. its real world consequences is evident.

Sigmund was not the paragon his brother was, and the realm he established may have been the most suspect from the very beginning. Its decline, perhaps, was no great loss. However, his ideas would never have unleashed the global scale of harm they did had they not been taken up by his own personal Mordred: his nephew Edward Bernays. It was the Machiavellian Bernays who saw how his uncle’s insights could be applied to serve Power. To control masses of people at once, not just give unhappy individual members of the bourgeoisie another way to spend their disposable income or their surplus leisure time.

What Bernays did was fascinating in the scope of its sheer perversity. Where his uncle had desired to create a rational system to hold the forces of the Id in check, Bernays saw how you could appeal directly to those very forces, above all Fear and Desire. And by recognizing how innately powerful they were compared to reason’s faulty and floundering sword, you could manipulate them successfully to keep people subservient to a powerful elite. To do so, you didn’t even need to know whether Sigmund’s ideas about the structure of the mind were scientifically verifiable or not. It didn’t matter in the least. So much for the Enlightenment.

If you want to understand Bernays’ legacy, and how he above all the others may have shaped the world you experience on a daily basis right now, including how you are taught to understand yourself as an “individual” within it, the best thing to do is to watch Adam Curtis’ astounding documentary series The Century of the Self (2004). It is a great narrative because it has a Unified Theme, but it is truest possibly because in it there are no heroes. It’s arguable that there are villains, but other than Bernays, they are mostly anonymous. They are the ones who, in every decade of the 20th century, (each examined separately in the film) most openly and avidly serve Power.

Albert’s story is the saddest of all. A believer in peace, his ideas were used (and he helped to use them) to create the Supreme Weapon. (His Mordred was Robert Oppenheimer.) This weapon made possible for the first time – but not the last – the understanding that humans could use science and technology, the Enlightenment’s most powerful creations, to bring about the complete destruction of their world. You have heard this before by now, but to understand the time we live in, it cannot be overstated. No one attempting to invent such a story for moral suasion could produce a more compelling and tragic tale, or a more ironic hero to be its protagonist.

A believer in cosmic unity, Albert has also left the legacy of a cosmos that appears to be radically discontinuous and not unifiable in any experimentally verifiable way, disappearing in paradox at both the grandest and the smallest scale we have been able to test or formulate. Perhaps we should be grateful for this, as a further turn of the ironic screw. (The only sword civilized humanity seems able to wield anymore against concentrated Power is that ultimate weapon of the weak, Irony). As long as theoretical physics is busy elaborating untestable hypotheses and experimental physics is dropping down the Subatomic Rabbit Hole after it, perhaps physics cannot produce anything else that is as profoundly toxic to the living world as nuclear energy. But then again, perhaps it doesn’t have to.

Ergo: the Enlightenment’s flaws were intrinsic, and its highest creations were the ultimate agents of its decline.

Before you Leftwingers start taking me to task for leaving out Adolph the Mystic Vegetarian, and Fascism, and their all-too-obvious role in the story of the death of the Enlightenment, please bear in mind that my story has a premise, which I make no attempt to hide. The premise is that the Enlightenment was fatally flawed from its inception, a product of a collective human relationship to the living world that has proven intrinsically catastrophic. Fascism was just another shadow to the Enlightenment’s animus, if you will. Adolph is everybody’s Mordred, all of us make him possible by our compliance with Power, and he will continue to rise somewhere – he is rising again even now – as long as Fear and Desire can be wielded by Power to keep us in line.

The Fatal Flaw

In hindsight, the great error of the Enlightenment’s founders and heroes was their attempt to narrow all relevant understanding of the world to the confines of rational thought. To dispense with all other ways of knowing, particularly those that had largely been practiced by women and other “primitives.”

This part of the story has been told (too often in unnecessarily ugly, jargonistic and obscure language, literally ad nauseum) by scholars of the Humanities for the last forty years now. But perhaps because Humanities scholars are among the people whose work is most removed from any influence of the nonhuman living world, except possibly for Abstract Mathematicians, they have not been able to contribute much that was not the intellectual equivalent of the dissection of a corpse. And even they, deformed children of the Enlightenment that they are, have tended to overlook the fact that the “primitives” have not become extinct, and have been speaking for themselves the whole time. And that the language in which they speak is resonant with the tropes of myth. Which is not the same as saying that it is incompatible with reason, or the practice of science.

Those older, dispensable ways of knowing were not necessarily more “democratic” in their consequences, in the bourgeois sense of that term. But they were integral to some modes of human existence that were self-limiting and, if one word describes it, ecological. They were incapable of producing large-scale tragic consequences because their understanding of humans as participants in the larger living world, not a force opposed to it, effectively neutralized a fundamental ingredient for the creation of tragedy: hubris.

Reducing everything outside the human mind to dead matter and mechanistic forces, and the mind itself to a single one of its many capabilities has proven to have not just tragic, but dystopic consequences, which we are living out. Who ever thought that a simple, homely phrase: I Think Therefore I Am – could have had such dire effect? But then again, who ever thought three letters and an equals sign could produce a weapon capable of ending all life on earth? If the sleep of reason breeds monsters, what would you call these creations of reason wide-awake?

The more matter is outwardly mastered, the more it overwhelms us in our hearts, said a 20th century American writer not otherwise known for great philosophical insight.

But the 21st century, in my story at least, is the Century of Blowback, the dawning of the Age of Consequences, and in it we are seeing that myth is not so easily killed off, that it remains a far more powerful cognitive tool than policy, formula, or Data Dump. The triumph of advertising, which wields primarily the story of Desire, and the contemporary explosion of religious fundamentalisms, which wield primarily the story of Fear, should make this obvious. Both offer resonant mythic identities – however inadequate and untenable – to their adherents. Meanwhile the old hero story, placed as it always was out in the cosmic arena beyond the regions of actual human existence, still generates the most universal awe in the global Temple of the Cineplex. The Force Awakens again – because it never slept.

Please note: those are all examples of degraded forms of myth because they have been put at the service of ideologies that have no holistic vision of humans and the living world. But even a degraded form of myth can make you Vote Against Your Own (Material) Interests. Because, as anyone but a rationalist can easily understand, your interests are not only material. Not bread alone, some wise-guy said.

Even the hero story modality I have used is suspect, and a sign of trouble. As the hero, that guy who slaughtered all the mammoths, then fought the gods, then got to be God Him [sic] self, rose through the ranks of consciousness, the principles of Balance and Harmony with the living world have receded towards oblivion.

The Return of Life

Before he died, our ironic hero Albert left us with a final summation of his ultimate understanding of life: Imagination is More Important Than Knowledge. And that is why I tell this story as a cosmic fable. The power of myth is the power of metaphor, which is the ancient mechanism of association that creates insight. (You could rephrase Albert’s dictum to say that Insight is More Important Than Knowledge.)

The power of myth is also the power of creative time. Albert’s work destroyed time on the chalk board of physics, but human life and the existence of all living things is bound by it, steeped in it, defined by it. Humans alone (so far as we know) can experience time in a creative way, imagining times at a distant reach from their immediate circumstances, or even Time Itself as a creative process. Myth was once the narrative vehicle for this understanding. History is as reductive an approach to time as Science is to matter.

But Science, after giving us the Bomb, and then choking us with toxic gadgets, and fiddling around with uncanny machine life, has belatedly begun to uncover a different story. Most of the processes occurring in the brain take place too quickly for conscious awareness, giving Jumping to Conclusions a whole new meaning. It appears increasingly possible that there is no isolable and replicable material cause for consciousness, or even for life. And the elements we have dismissed as White Noise in any system (including the brain) may actually be essential to its stability and endurance, and also to its ability to produce novelty. This suggests – some scientists are even daring to say it – that the whole reductive paradigm needs a Reboot. Or let’s say a Rebirth instead.

The brains of the creatures whose technology makes their laboring bodies increasingly irrelevant to their survival have not altered much since they wielded axes and flints and fire. And our technologically mediated social systems have not reached anything like the base level of complexity of a dynamically stable ecosystem in the nonhuman living world. So why would we imagine it desirable – even if it were possible – to diminish the complexity of our own thinking and limit the idea of consciousness to the product of machine learning? We would be guaranteeing our irrelevance, and our succession by the hopelessly simplistic (compared to living systems) machines that were supposed to carry us to utopia on their silicon backs.

After the horrors of Ragnarök, a new, re-enlivened earth is born. What if, out of the collapse of the Enlightenment, the Enlivenment could be born? Look for it soon, but maybe not in a theater near you.

Christy Rodgers lives in San Francisco, where all that is solid melts into air. Her essays and reviews have appeared in CounterPunch Alternet, Upside Down World, Truthout, Dark Mountain Project, and Left Curve Magazine. Her blog is What If? Tales, Transformations, Possibilities.

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